Published Online:

The Reagan Administration and N.I.E.: Uncertain Future and New Priorities

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

President Reagan's choice of Terrel H. Bell to become Secretary of Education early last year was viewed by longtime observers of the National Institute of Education (NIE) as a sign that the problem-plagued agency's fortunes were finally on the upswing.

The institute--whose advances in educational research had been eclipsed by eight years of political and budgetary problems--would be a priority of the new Secretary, its staff and supporters assumed. Mr. Bell not only had served on the NIE's policy-making council for several years--and, thus, was familiar with the institute's work--but was a popular figure on Capitol Hill, where he was soon to testify about the institute's "excellence in program quality, and its exciting plans for the future."

Moreover, the Secretary favored fundamental research and was thus expected to eliminate the "silly and frivolous" work, in the words of a former NIE employee, that during the Carter Administration had earned the NIE the enmity of conservatives.

The initial optimism, however, has been soured by other Presidential actions: the removal from office of the entire 15-member National Council on Educational Research, the NIE policy-making body whose members are supposed to serve staggered, three-year terms; and the appointment as officials of the agency of people who had worked in the 1980 Presidential campaign, contrary to the practice of previous Administrations.

Those appointments turned, in the words of one observer, into a "classic series of blunders," as the institute's new director and his assistants altered the NIE's future research agenda, fired staff members, and alienated the research community. Finally, the director--"like a kamikaze pilot," says Denis P. Doyle of the American Enterprise Institute--asserted in a letter to President Reagan that the federal government has no role in conducting educational research.

Although the director, Edward A. Curran, was subsequently fired, critics charge that efforts to redirect the agency's work toward politically conservative issues have been continued by his deputies.

Whereas the Carter-appointed leaders of the institute had been accused of conducting research with a liberal bias toward "equity" issues, the new leadership represented an ideological about-face, emphasizing issues of "excellence and freedom"--code words for a philosophy that favors no federal role in education.

The result, 10 years after the creation of the NIE, is a renewed debate over whether the political domination of the institute--either by liberals or by conservatives--represents an insurmountable obstacle to the fulfillment of the agency's research mission.

As Diane Ravitch, professor of education at Teachers College at Columbia University, poses the question: "Can the federal government, limited by conflicting ideologies, ever support research that is valuable to people, whatever their political persuasion? Research that isn't flash, responding to trends, or partisan?"

Secretary Bell responds affirmatively to such questions, citing as evidence NIE's achievements in effective-schools research and research in reading comprehension. 'Poignant' Optimism

Others, however, regard the Secretary's continued optimism, in light of the actions of those responsible to him, as "poignant."

"It's sad that a Secretary with that vision and interest has found himself undercut by the shenanigans of people with less vision," says Harold Howe 2d, professor of education at Harvard University. Mr. Howe was formerly chairman of the National Council on Educational Research and U.S. Commissioner of Education in the 1960's.

"It's a tragedy that the Administration is using NIE to appoint people who are tuned into politics but are not familiar with research or its purposes," adds Mr. Doyle.

The actions by the new leadership are especially "troubling," says Thomas K. Glennan Jr., because "there were some very healthy signs about NIE's future before the Reagan Administration came in." Mr. Glennan was the institute's director during the Nixon Administration.

Among those positive signs cited by Mr. Glennan and others are: increased support from educators, including the first resolution supporting NIE ever to be passed at a convention of the American Federation of Teachers; the virtually unanimous praise accorded the institute's effective-schools research and the adoption of its findings nationwide; and the willingness of Congressmen to consider allowing the NIE to end its special relationship with the 17 educational laboratories and centers that receive half of the institute's budget.

With those signs, and the Secretary's enthusiasm, staff members say they originally looked upon Mr. Curran as a worthy candidate for the directorship. The Secretary had announced his intention to involve "practitioners" more directly in the institute, and Mr. Curran had been headmaster of the National Cathedral School, a prestigious preparatory school in Washington, D.C.

But Mr. Curran, who is described by NIE staff members as "unfamiliar" with education-research issues, relied heavily on the advice of his principal aides.

Among them was Lawrence A. Uzzell, a former Capitol Hill aide and policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, the public-policy research organization. Mr. Uzzell, a long-time critic of the NIE, "was never interested in building NIE," says a Reagan Administration official, who asked not to be identified.

Mr. Uzzell wrote a now-infamous set of planning guidelines for the institute, advocating research that would answer such questions as: "Who in the long run is richer, happier, wiser, and/or more virtuous: the graduate of a highly structured traditional college program, a free-wheeling, 'relevant' program, or a preprofessional program?"

The circulation of the guidelines set off a widespread protest from scholars and educators, and the questions raised regarding the attitude underlying the document were responsible, in part, for the decision by the Congress earlier this year to continue special funding for the educational laboratories and centers.

Mr. Uzzell also quickly alienated the NIE staff through such comments as: "'Equity' is used as a form of verbal wallpaper"; and "Social scientists are the least good at thinking about the most important things; there should be more historians and philosophers at NIE"

Mr. Uzzell left the institute last June along with the director, then launched a direct-mail campaign to raise funds for a lobbying effort to abolish the institute and the Education Department, and to urge the removal of Secretary Bell from office. Mr. Curran was hired as deputy director of the Peace Corps.

After the two departed, the Reagan-appointed deputy director of the institute, Robert W. Sweet Jr., assumed the director's duties. Mr. Sweet, a former high-school science teacher and textbook salesman from New Hampshire, refuses to discuss his predecessors.

During the past six months, Mr. Sweet has made numerous changes at the institute, based on his belief that the institute was "mismanaged" during the past few years and that its research agenda needs to be "redirected." Observers of the changes--including staff members and external critics of the institute--contend, however, that some of those actions are potentially harmful to the NIE's future. They charge the new leadership with:

Alienating the educational-research community, and paying only small attention to that community in planning the research agenda.

"We've been disappointed that the research community hasn't been ac-tively involved in [the institute's] planning," says William W. Cooley, president of the American Educational Research Association. "When we have tried to be helpful in very specific ways, it hasn't been well received," says Mr. Cooley, who is director of evaluation for the Learning Research and Development Center, one of the institute's Congressionally mandated research institutions.

"The constituency of NIE is not rightly educational researchers," writes Mr. Sweet in a paper delineating his standards for the institute. "NIE's constituency, like the rest of the department's, is American school-age children and their parents. Education researchers are just a utilitarian means to serve this public good."

Placing in one of the most crucial posts in the agency--that of director of planning and program development--a former Heritage Foundation policy analyst who has one year of teaching experience but no experience in educational research.

The planning director, Thomas R. Ascik, says he is steering the institute away from a "socio-legal agenda" and toward the "foundations of American education." Mr. Ascik, who holds a bachelor's degree in philosophy, replaced a research psychologist with 20 years' experience and a doctoral degree.

Systematically removing, or scheduling the removal of, 77 of the institute's 261 staff members. The employees were hired under a special authority that permits NIE to employ temporarily "professional and technical" staff outside civil-service requirements.

'Excepted Authority'

Mr. Sweet says that federal regulations stipulate that no more than 20 percent of employees hired under the "excepted" authority may serve for more than three years. "Fifty percent of them have been here for several years," contrary to law, he says. The employees, who also charge that their performance evaluations were purposely downgraded, have filed a grievance with the Merit Systems Protection Board, the federal agency that investigates employment-related complaints.

Concentrating hiring authority in the director's office. Although nationally competitive searches were used to hire "excepted" appointees throughout the history of the institute, Mr. Sweet says he found that practice too time consuming.

The employment regulations, as revised, permit wide latitude to the director of the institute, and 11 new employees have been hired under the regulations. Mr. Sweet and, previously, Mr. Curran, told the NIE staff of their desire to hire their "own people," according to staff members.

"There is an 'entrenched establishment' at NIE that I am trying to change," says Mr. Sweet, "an attitude among many in the institute who believe that government should have a big role in education programs--notions such as the redistribution of income through school-finance research, desegregation. ... There was a preponderance of studies supporting busing."

Mr. Sweet describes his own approach to educational research as one in which the concerns of parents are paramount.

"Behavioral science has played an enormous role in educational rePAGE 13

search on children. I would fall more in line with Max Rafferty," he says, referring to the late educational crusader and California state superintendent of public instruction during President Reagan's tenure as governor. "I would like to carry on the kind of tradition [Mr. Rafferty] was fighting for," he says.

"Parents have the authority and make the decisions," he says.

The research community, Mr. Sweet contends, has unfairly criticized the planning director and himself for not possessing doctoral degrees. (Mr. Sweet holds a bachelor's degree in English.)

"They measure achievement by whether you have an Ed.D. or a Ph.D. I don't think that should be so. I will match my wits in education research with anybody in the institute," he says.

Concern for Future

Donald H. Graves, a professor of early-childhood education at the University of New Hampshire, disputes that position. "I'm very concerned about the future, and that qualified persons work at the institute," says Mr. Graves, who directed an NIE-funded study of students' writing processes.

"People have to be knowledgeable about the fields they'll be supervising. How can you send out proposals with precise language that a researcher can read, so that persons who are applying for funds can carry out what government is asking them to do?" he asks. "You can't write it unless you know the field."

Despite the controversy raised by some of the deputy director's actions, the NIE's new research agenda "includes a number of good projects," says Chester E. Finn Jr., a professor of education and public policy and Vanderbilt University. Mr. Finn and others have criticized the institute, under the previous Administration, for avoiding research on controversial subjects.

The new projects include: a study of the 27-year-old Minnesota law permitting tax deductions for educational expenses, including private-school tuition; studies of the nature and type of private schools and comparative research on effective schools in the public and private sectors; a study of the roles of state legislators and school boards in formulating education policy; studies of legal issues surrounding private and home-based schooling; and numerous studies on teacher-related issues, including hiring practices, the quality of teachers, and the course content and methods taught by teacher-education schools.

The institute is also preparing a report that "pulls together" the results of research on teaching reading, to help schools deal with students' reading problems, according to Mr. Sweet.

At the same time, the NIE has begun research on politically sensitive issues from a decidedly conservative perspective. A study of the effects of desegregation on the achievement levels of black students, for example, is based on the new leadership's philosophy, as stated in policy documents, that "the most important problem is the fact that forced 'racial-balance' busing amounts to discrimination against minorities."

Other examples include: an examination of public-school textbooks for evidence of hidden encouragement of "values clarification"; studies debating "whether teaching is an art or a science"; and a study questioning "whether schools are social laboratories or institutions for refining of the basic intellectual skills."

For the current fiscal year, the amount of new research represents only $6 million of a $53-million budget, Mr. Ascik says. A large portion of the remainder of the NIE's funds are supporting continuations of multi-year grants, although the proportion of new work will grow in the next couple of years, he says.

Long-time observers of the institute add, however, that controversies surrounding the new leadership also are likely to expand. Critics charge that the new NIE director appointed by President Reagan, Manuel Justiz, is being undermined even before his appointment is confirmed by the Senate.

Mr. Justiz is a member of, and has received the endorsement of, the American Educational Research Association. He most recently was director of Latin American programs in education at the University of New Mexico.

Mr. Sweet says he also sought the director's post, actively campaigning for the position by visiting the offices of members of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee. Although he was not chosen, Mr. Sweet says he will respect the new director's "point of view."

At the Senate committee's hearing on Mr. Justiz's appointment earlier this month, a Republican, Gordon J. Humphrey of New Hampshire, presented Mr. Justiz with questions about his views on "values clarification," about the role of parents in the schools, and about whether Mr. Justiz intended to "support the philosophical role of the institute in the past year."

"I was hoping for the appointment of Mr. Sweet [as director]," said the Senator. "Any attempt at [his] ouster will be read as a change in direction of the institute and a sell-out of the principles that have guided the institute in the past year."

"I believe [Mr. Sweet] has turned in an excellent performance. His philosophy is in accord with the President's," Mr. Justiz replied.

Questions Submitted

Senator Jeremiah Denton of Alabama, another committee member, submitted approximately 25 written questions on the same subjects. A Senate committee aide says the source of some of those questions was Mr. Uzzell.

Mr. Uzzell refuses to confirm or deny that he provided the questions, although he acknowledges that he continues to "take an interest" in the institute.

"The guy doesn't have a chance," says one NIE observer, referring to Mr. Justiz. "He'll be eaten alive," says the observer, who asked not to be identified.

Does the institute have a future? Can a federally funded research agency fulfill the mission of helping schools understand how to provide a "high-quality" education, without political interference?

The events at the institute under the current Administration, says Mr. Finn, "have persuaded me that the problems of NIE that I already thought were serious are serious, endemic, and incurable.

"Can you have a research agency supported by the federal government that is subject to ideological domination? No, and the situation has persuaded me that you shouldn't expect to. The NIE has done useful work with pieces of the research agenda. But throughout the NIE's history the agenda-making has been knocked all over the place by political and ideological influences and interest-group greed."

"The more I've seen of Washington," says Sheldon H. White, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, "the more skeptical I've become that really dedicated researchers could work year after year and protect themselves in that bureaucracy. I didn't believe that NIE could work 10 years ago, and I don't believe it could work now."

"[Former Senator] Javits and [former Representative] Brademas had enough faith and vision to put something together over time," says Mr. Howe.

"The National Institutes of Health have a reputation for being politically neutral and academically solid. The idea was, why not something like that for education?"

Mr. Uzzell responds that "education is not a science." Further, he asserts that, "as long as the federal government practices education research, education research will be politicized."

"The NIE is inherently more vulnerable [than other research agencies]," adds Mr. White. "Social-science research works closer to human values and is inherently more vulnerable," he says.

Blames Administration

Mr. Glennan says he blames the problems of the NIE on the Reagan Administration. "I think the stability and intellectual capability built up [during the late 1970's] has been pretty well cast in the winds and the institutional capability has been pretty well smashed."

"The larger dilemma is not what happens to this agency," says Ms. Ravitch. "There is a problem of educational research generally. People in education consider themselves professionals, but if you look at other areas that depend on research, they don't have to contend in the public marketplace where findings rest on these ideological issues."

"One of the crucial questions is, who believes educational research is valuable?" adds Patricia A. Graham, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Says John T. Guthrie, director of research for the International Reading Association: "The NIE's reading-research program has had a very substantial impact on understanding the cognitive process of reading, including decoding, phonics, and comprehension."

Adds Mr. Graves: "Up until the founding of the NIE, basic research was very hard to come by. There was only money for applied research, but not enough to find out how kids think. In 1977, for the first time, NIE started the ball rolling on writing as a basic skill. Since then, the attention to writing has been extraordinary."

"We need the institute because there is not an adequate 'knowledge base' now in education," says Freda M. Holley, director of research and evaluation for the Austin, Tex., school system, which has made use of NIE-supported research in teacher effectiveness and school finance.

"There are so many things we don't know about learning, instruction, and teaching. The search is not something you can conduct in little bits and pieces. You need a national effort. There's no doubt that one of the big problems that NIE has had consistently has been politics. It's been very difficult to cope with," she says. "The answer is not to cut out NIE, but to try to build in the minds of politicians a perception that there is a need to conduct research."

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories